"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Dawn Eden on the Theology of the Body

I've obtained the revised version of Dawn Eden's recent master's thesis at "the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception at the Dominican House of Studies" in Washington, DC:  "Towards a 'Climate of Chastity': Bringing Catechesis on the Theology of the Body into the Hermeneutic of Continuity". Some will remember her: ex-rock-journalist, Catholic convert, and author of the countercultural 2006 book The Thrill of the Chastea title reflecting her talent as an erstwhile headline writerEden can write very well for a general audience.

That's why potential readers should not be put off by the theological jargon in the title of the present, more academic work. For one thing, people motivated enough to tackle the topic in depth will already have a good enough idea of what terms such as 'catechesis', 'the theology of the body', and 'the hermeneutic of continuity' mean. And making the usual allowances for academic ritual, the work itself is a clearly written critique of the popularizing approach of Christopher West. That's important because West has guided the thinking of more American Catholics today than anybody else who talks about human sexuality from a Catholic standpoint. Exposing his theological and catechetical weaknesses, and proposing improvements, would be a real service to the American Church. Eden's thesis is a big step in that direction.

In due acknowledgement of my prejudices, I admit that I both like and dislike Pope John Paul II's theology of the body ('the TOB'). The Pope developed it most explicitly in a series of catechetical talks from 1979-83, which I recall reading as soon as they were published in English. I like the TOB because it continued the Roman Magisterium's efforts, starting with Pius XI and taking off with the sections on marriage in Vatican II's Gaudium et spes, to develop the Church's traditional teachings about sexuality in its mystical, biblical, and psychological dimensions. Indeed, the TOB was originally intended to defend, by way of creative explication, Pope Paul VI's widely execrated 1968 encyclical on birth control, to whose composition which Karol Wojtyla himself had contributed. Like other contemporary defenders of Humanae Vitae's teaching, I have mined some of Wojtyla's themes myself. That kind of project was and remains worthwhile. But I dislike the TOB talks because they are often obscurely expressed and suffer, at least to my philosophical mind, many gaps in argument. So the TOB itself cries out for explanation and defense, which it was originally meant to supply.

That is the main reason why the TOB hasn't yet fulfilled its promise. The progressives resist it because it's a rationale for teachings they want jettisoned; the traditionalists resist it because it doesn't just repeat the Same Old Thing they know. But most Catholics just lack the intellectual background to appreciate it in the terms JP2 used. To overcome such obstacles, clarity as well as depth of presentation is desperately needed.

West is the best-known person in the Anglosphere to attempt that at a popular level. His intentions are good, his style is arresting, and his influence has generally been positive. Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia, among other prelates, has backed him consistently. But there are problems. Most of them were brought to light by a few theologians in the aftermath of a rather unfortunate Nightline segment with West in May 2009. I suppose there are always problems with popularizers—just as there are always problems with real scholars—who tackle important and controversial subjects. But until David Schindler, dean of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, delivered himself of a brief but pointed critique of his ex-student Christopher West last summer, I hadn't realized the extent of the problems.

Eden does a good, nay surgical job of getting at their conceptual basis. Rather than summarize her entire case, I shall focus on her most important criticism and on what I see as her most constructive suggestion. The rest I leave to the reader.

Eden's most telling criticism is that West's explication of the TOB explicitly presents it as "revolutionary," in such a way as to constitute an actual rupture with the broad tradition of Church teaching. I'm convinced she's right about that. For example, she shows in almost painful detail how West's account of the pre-virtue of "continence," and the full virtue of "chastity" of which continence forms a part, is actually contrary to John Paul II's (largely Thomistic) meaning.

West also thinks that the TOB is revolutionary as an antidote to the sexual "repression" from which "generations of Catholics" have suffered. That may well have been true of many Catholics prior to Vatican II, but as Eden notes, it can hardly be said about the majority of Catholics since then. The vision of human sexuality that Humanae Vitae presented has been widely rejected in favor of a contraceptive mentality among Catholics themselves. In view of that, it's a real problem that West virtually ignores HV's exhortation to "self-mastery," which it was an important part of the TOB to explicate. As a whole, West's presentation violates the "hermeneutic of continuity" that must be pursued if progressive and traditionalist critiques of Humanae Vitae, which represent their own hermeneutics of discontinuity, are not to be justified. That's not what West intended, but that's what his execution entails.

This is not to say that I think Eden herself gets that broader issue quite right either. She writes:
In the long run, perhaps the most damaging aspect of West’s presentation may be his
assertion that John Paul II’s teachings are “revolutionary,” thereby teaching that the Church’s
sacred deposit of faith is not fully contained in Scripture and Tradition, but, rather, progresses
with the passage of time—like a pubescent child that “still has a good deal of maturing ahead ...and a good deal of ‘growing pains.’” The memory of the dissent from Humanae Vitae, which was prompted largely by contraception advocates’ dashed expectations that the encyclical would alter official teachings, should serve as a warning against suggesting to the faithful that the Church’s doctrine keeps pace with changing times (p 73).
I don't hear West saying, and I don't think his arguments commit him to saying, that the TOB was introducing truths that were not at least materially contained in the deposit of faith from the beginning. Properly understood, authentic development of doctrine merely makes formally explicit what has always been materially present in the deposit. That's what I believe the TOB was doing, and I see no evidence that West would deny that. The difficulty is not with his general idea about the development of doctrine, but rather with his imperfect understanding of the TOB's content. West makes JP2 appear to say things contrary to the tradition of the Church, even though neither man intended that. But West's metaphor of the Church moving from childhood to adolescence on the matter of sexuality, though perhaps sloppily applied, can be understood to apply to the Church's understanding of the deposit rather than to the deposit itself.

Unfortunately, West does not concern himself with such subtleties. Worse, his vision of the TOB is blinkered in comparison with that of JP2 himself. The wider context of the Pope's voluminous output shows that he makes far more allowance for the role of redemptive suffering in marriage, including conjugal sexuality, than does West, who virtually ignores the issue in favor of arguing that our relationship with Christ is "always" mediated through "sexual desire" and "intercourse." The charge that he oversexualizes spirituality is justified. In fact, a healthy conjugal sexuality should be seen as a real symbol of God's relationship with his people, but that entails self-restraint at least as often as it entails intercourse.

Accordingly, Eden's most constructive suggestion is to urge that West's approach incorporate "Mystical Body theology" especially in the "experience of brokenness," about which West says very little. There has to be a via media between seeing sex primarily as a danger to the soul and seeing it as the preferred medium for our divinization in Christ. Sexual desire, intercourse, and continence, each in their proper circumstances and order, need to be seen as expressions of a married couple's mutual self-gift, i.e. their sacramental love.

The issues raised by the TOB require more profound meditation than West has given them. That kind of meditation has been seen hitherto only in a rather narrow academic circle of Catholics. Once Eden's thesis is re-written as a book aimed at a general audience, the meditation can spread in earnest.
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